Jan 16, 2024 - Business

Scoop: The Free Press in talks to raise capital this year

The Free Press founder Bari Weiss at the Ace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles during the company's first live debate event in September. Photo: Roger Kisby

The Free Press, a new media company launched by former New York Times writer and editor Bari Weiss, plans to raise funds this year to jump-start growth, executives told Axios.

Why it matters: Few media startups catering to general audiences have been able to successfully attract investment in today's bearish media market.

  • The Free Press, which has seen its free and paid audience numbers grow consistently in the past year, would be a notable exception.
  • The company has already received outreach from several prominent investment firms and individuals, three sources told Axios.

Details: In an interview with Axios, Weiss and The Free Press' new chief operating officer, Lars Kahl, confirmed that the firm plans to raise money in 2024, but declined to say how much.

  • "We will look at the right partners for the beginning of next year to speak to map out the paths to growth," Kahl told Axios in late December.
  • Kahl, who joined The Free Press earlier this month after nearly a decade with German media giant Axel Springer, will lead the company's efforts to build out its sponsorship and events business in 2024.
  • Having spent years eyeing investments for Axel Springer, Kahl said he was attracted to The Free Press' "radical centrist approach" that can cater to a huge swath of Americans, as opposed to a niche audience.
  • "There's a huge number of Americans that identify as centrist and independent," he said. "Business wise, there is unlimited potential to grow this company in various ways. "

The big picture: More money is flowing to media outlets and platforms that provide an alternative to mainstream news sources.

  • A slew of institutional investors backed Elon Musk's overpriced takeover of Twitter, now X, in late 2022.
  • Omeed Malik, a financier known for backing companies with conservative values, is funding Tucker Carlson's media venture with $15 million from his private fund.
  • Malik, along with a group of conservative operators, is eyeing a buyout of The Messenger that would value the outlet at $60 million.
  • The commercial success of the Daily Wire has piqued the interest of institutional investors who have told Axios they would be interested in the asset if it were to ever go public or raise money.

By the numbers: The Free Press currently employs around 20 full-time employees and 10 contractors, Weiss said, roughly double the number of staff at its launch in late 2022.

  • In the coming weeks, the company plans to hire nearly a dozen more roles on both the business and editorial sides.
  • The firm is not yet profitable. Last year, it brought in roughly $5 million in revenue, mostly from subscriptions to its daily newsletter.
  • The Free Press currently has around 540,000 total email subscribers, 77,000 of which are paid, per Weiss. Most subscribers pay between $6.67 and $8 monthly to access The Free Press' full suite of content.

Between the lines: Looking ahead, Weiss and Kahl plan to invest more in audio and video projects to grow the company's audience and expand sponsorship opportunities.

  • To bolster those efforts, the company has hired former Vice producer Alex Chitty as its head of video. It also hired Oliver Wiseman from The Spectator to oversee big editorial projects and stories.
  • Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that The Free Press signed a two-year deal with Netflix to create nonfiction works from its content.
  • Weiss told Axios the firm has hired Hollywood talent agency WME to help manage its licensing deals.

Zoom in: The Free Press also plans to expand its events portfolio to include a series of debates in different cities in 2024, pegged to the success of its first debate event in Los Angeles last September.

  • That event, Weiss noted, sold out a 1,600-person theater at LA's Ace Hotel.
  • Weiss said the sponsor of that event, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, has signed another deal with The Free Press to sponsor at least two more live debate events in 2024.

Catch up quick: The Free Press was born out of a newsletter launched by Weiss in the wake of her dramatic departure from The New York Times in 2020.

  • The email, sent using the independent publishing platform Substack, eventually became the launch pad for The Free Press in 2022.
  • The newsletter, in addition to Weiss' "Honestly" podcast, focuses on topics that "have either been overlooked or misconstrued by the rest of the press," Weiss said. It has focused on the debate over ideology in education and arguments about COVID policy and DEI.
  • The outlet's coverage of the Israel-Hamas war last year delivered a huge audience growth boost, the Wall Street Journal reported.

What's next: Weiss said one of the editorial topics the company could go much deeper on this year is science and medicine.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Lars Kahl was with Axel Springer for nearly a decade.

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